Health News Review

Better than the WebMD story on the same study because CNN discussed potential harms and had several sources. But this is one instance where the 4-star score based on our 10 criteria seems too high.  When you get the basics wrong, you got the story wrong.

Our Review Summary

What basics are wrong? The on-air and online stories still used terms like "benefit" and "lowers risk" – sometimes with the qualifier "may cut risk" which still doesn’t cover up the inaccuracy of using causal language to explain results that can’t prove cause-and-effect.


Why This Matters

Some of the online comments on the CNN website provide a glimpse of how readers react to such stories: 

  • "i love how an article starts with something positive and then slowly becomes a little gloomy. so is it good or not? i’m still where i was with coffee, it’s all in moderation, it ain’t gonna solve your health woes."
  • "The statistics book in a class I’m taking right know uses coffee as an example of statistics run amok. It seems coffee has caused all the cancers and cures them at the same time."
  • "Could it be that instead of having mysterious compounds, coffee drinkers just drink more coffee than they drink alcohol or smoke?"
  • "I am so f-ing sick of these studies, or more precicesly how these "risk factors" are interpreted as "facts" by newspaper headlines. If you can’t explain why something happens other than surmising, stop wasting our time."
  • "…correlation IS NOT causation!!!! So people that drink 4 or more cups of coffee have a lower incidence of two certain types of head and neck cancers, and this is supposed to mean that coffee is actually "warding off" these cancers???"

Criteria

Not Applicable

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Not applicable – the cost of coffee is not in question.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The online and on-air stories still used inappropriate causal  language – as the WebMD story did – in describing the results of a study that can’t establish cause-and-effect.

The online story said "may cut risk" and "may lower the risk."  Adding the qualifying "may" doesn’t detract from the inappropriate causal verb that follows.

The on-air story used the term "benefit" when benefit can not be established in this kind of study.

Inappropriate.  Inaccurate. 

Satisfactory

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

At least this story did what the WebMD story didn’t do in discussing some of the potential harms from drinking a lot of coffee.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

At least the story commented briefly on the nature of the study:  "They looked at nine existing studies and analyzed how much coffee was consumed by more than 5,000 cancer patients and about 9,000 healthy people."

But it never stated explicitly that this kind of study CAN NOT establish cause and effect.  That’s still a major shortcoming of such stories. It only takes a line to do so, and we’ve provided some sample lines in a primer on this topic elsewhere on our site.

Satisfactory

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No overt disease-mongering in the story.

Satisfactory

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

One of the researchers and two independent sources were interviewed – something WebMD didn’t do.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story didn’t comment – as the WebMD story did – on other factors analyzed in the study such as tea, fruits and vegetables.

Not Applicable

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

Not applicable – the availability of coffee is not in question.

Satisfactory

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story at least briefly mentions other coffee research: "Other recent studies suggest coffee may have beneficial effects in other diseases like dementia, diabetes, liver and Parkinson’s disease. However, coffee alone may not be the answer according to some experts."

Not Applicable

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Applicable

Because of the number of sources cited, it’s clear this did not rely on a news release.

Total Score: 4 of 7 Satisfactory


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